I want students to have a good appreciation of historical narrative and the way that people have thought about history, that there isn't just one way to tell a story.
Associate Professor of History David Del Testa says his interest in U.S. overseas struggles took root as he listened to his uncles tell war stories from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. As the veterans imparted details of life in the trenches, Del Testa says he "wasn't interested in the conflicts themselves. Instead, I wanted to know: How did my relatives become involved in them? What were the motivational factors?" Del Testa says these experiences of his youth led him to choose as his professional scholarly specialty the history of French Colonial Vietnam from 1859-1954.
Now that he is in the position of teaching history to others, Del Testa wants to provide his students with direct learning experiences similar to the ones that ignited his own passion for the past. "At Bucknell, I try to have students connect with history directly as much as possible," he says. "In particular, if I can find living examples of the history that we're studying or a way to get them into the field to do research directly, either at a site or an archive, that's all the better."
In History 100, for example, Del Testa connects students with Bucknell graduates of the World War II era. The students collaborate with the alumni to produce oral histories about wartime life. Del Testa also sends students out into the field for his historiography and methodology class, where students learn how to "do history" by researching gristmills that existed locally near campus -- including a facility still in operation.
In addition to providing opportunities for direct learning, Del Testa also pushes students to think critically about history by integrating into classroom discussions perspectives he has gained through his scholarly research. He has found that the portrayal of French-occupied Vietnam in books is often vastly different from the experiences of people who have actually lived it.
"I want students to have a good appreciation of historical narrative and the way that people have thought about history, that there isn't just one way to tell a story," he says. "I try to teach them that history is something that people with ulterior motives want to take away from you so you don't have a good sense of yourself. It's important to always have a strong sense of self, and an important component of self is knowing history."
Posted Sept. 20, 2011